The wages of being black in America

November 29, 1994|By Derrick Z. Jackson

Palo Alto, Calif. -- STANFORD UNIVERSITY economist Martin Carnoy says the "invisible hand" that shapes the ugly job market for African Americans is neither IQ nor laziness. It is government, or, to be precise, the decreasing use of it.

In his new book, "Faded Dreams: The Politics and Economics of Race in America," Mr. Carnoy chronicles the huge wage gap between African Americans and white Americans, despite a half century of effort by African Americans to use education as the prime tool to gain equality. Wage discrimination is so blatant that during the "meritocracy" of Ronald Reagan's 1980s, African-American male college graduates lost major ground to white male college graduates.

"If you really believe that achievement is primarily what determines wages, you should see that progress in the wage statistics," Mr. Carnoy said recently before a conference of African-American columnists. "When you don't see it, you have to start to ask if achievement scores really play a role in the hiring process, as many education and business groups have been claiming they do."

In 1979, an African-American male college graduate made 82 percent of his white male counterpart's salary. In 1989, after the Reagan assault on social programs and affirmative action, African-American males with the same level of education made only 72 percent of the salaries of white college graduates. Median income adjusted for inflation rose in the past decade from $18,400 to $18,600 for white male college graduates aged 25-34. African-American male college graduates dropped from $15,100 to $13,300.

Mr. Carnoy found that wage discrimination worked to white male advantage even with the "model minority," Asian Americans. Even though Asian-American males bring higher test scores for the same amount of education into the marketplace, they earn only about what white males earn.

"Individual-responsibility proponents could claim that black college graduates are doing worse because affirmative action allowed lower-quality blacks to get a college education in the 1980s and gave under-qualified college-educated blacks good jobs in the 1970s and the early 1980s," Mr. Carnoy wrote. "But blacks' SAT [Scholastic Assessment Test] scores rose sharply in the 1980s compared with whites' scores, and so did blacks' relative scores on [verbal proficiency tests]. Employers may well have been willing to offer worse jobs to black graduates as government became more slack in enforcing affirmative action."

Mr. Carnoy's book is instructive because it comes out just as the current political rhetoric has regressed to the Reagan years. Republicans swept to majority power in Congress in a campaign against "big" government. Many African Americans translate that to mean a white attack on any use of government to promote and ensure equality.

Mr. Carnoy himself does not claim that increased racism accounts for continued wage gaps for African-American men. "Racism did not have to harden for wage discrimination to increase," he wrote. "All that had to happen was for government to change its ideological position on racial inequality -- from one that viewed government as a force for reducing discrimination [such as during the Lyndon Johnson administration] to one that declared that discrimination was a thing of the past [such as the Reagan administration]."

Mr. Carnoy said the challenge now might be even tougher than during the Reagan years because with no Cold War, race politics has taken center stage.

"The Communists can't get us," Mr. Carnoy said. "So now it's low-income people. It's immigrants. Many people say African Americans lag in the job market either because they don't try as hard or the economy is just increasingly stacked against less educated people. But most of the evidence suggests that when you change the politics of race, you change job outcomes. An education is really important. But it's not enough unless government makes sure the labor market works."

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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